Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
12 January 2020, NL2-19 (Epiphany theme: 2020 Vision)
A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. They gathered in such large numbers that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. Some men came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralysed man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’
Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, ‘Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’
Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, ‘Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to this paralysed man, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Get up, take your mat and walk”? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.’ So he said to the man, ‘I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.’ He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’
Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.
While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’
On hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, ‘How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?’
Jesus answered, ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.
‘No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.’
During the season of Epiphany, as we read straight through the gospel according to Mark, we are honing our 2020 vision, looking for who Jesus really is as he reveals himself to the world. I hope you are keeping your eyes open for moments of everyday life that seem like illustrations of moments in the gospel, and snapping a photo so we can compile an illustrated gospel for our times.
Today we see these encounters between Jesus and people who don’t yet understand. Their vision is constrained, we might say, by the familiar. Like wine skins that are already stretched, they can’t hold the bubbling expansion of new wine...and so their worldview is burst open, if they try to accommodate the new thing God is doing in Christ.
Sometimes, our worldview needs to be burst open.
But notice that Jesus doesn’t say that the old wine skins or the old cloak are useless and ought to be thrown out. He says that they still have some life left in them, if they are used for the right thing. If we want to store old wine, then an old wineskin is just the thing. In fact, a new one would be wasted on the old wine, and potentially ruined as well.
The categories and structures inherited from the past cannot contain Jesus and his message, any more than a tomb would. And similarly, if all we want to do is live in the old way, there’s no point in trying to do that within the new life Jesus is showing us. He doesn’t say it’s bad to continue with old wine and old wine skins....though we should be aware of the limited lifespan they have. And if we want to go with him, then we will have to be willing to leave the old wineskin behind, because he is forever expanding the boundaries of the kingdom.
That boundary expansion, or rather erasing, is what precipitated this discussion of old and new wine in the first place. Jesus had decided, first, to call a hated tax collector as one of his disciples...and then, to add insult to injury, he went to their house and shared a meal with all sorts of sinners. Meanwhile, the Pharisees and the teachers, people who tried their best to be as holy as possible all the time, following all the rules as a way to be close to God, could not fathom this situation. Why on earth would he purposely go hang out with those people?
Well, because for Jesus, every meal shared is an opportunity to break down barriers. Every time he’s at the table, he offers healing of one sort or another. And he is demonstrating that all kinds of people, not just the people who get close to God by following the rules, but all kinds of people, can be his disciples. Not only that, but he will seek them out, not waiting for us to come to him and ask, but coming right up to our dinner tables and our workplaces and our favourite pews and calling us to join him....even though it will mean doing the hard work of stretching and seasoning a new wineskin, from within.
Because it isn’t just Jesus himself who is the new wine that can’t be contained by the previous generations’ ways. It’s his disciples as well. They are noticeable out in the world, because they behave the same way that he does, and they cause questions from those in authority and those who think their way is the only way to holiness. When Jesus is questioned about his disciples, it’s because people can see that they are the people who eat together with sinners and tax collectors, they are the people who insist on a table that’s open to all, they are the people who are feasting while the disciples of the old way are fasting. And they aren’t just feasting for conspicuous consumption, though they are conspicuous. They are feasting because they recognise God in their midst. They don’t need to become holy first in order to get close to God....God has come, in the flesh, right to their tables. Right to our tables. And when we choose a feast where all are welcome, where the table can stretch to include sinners and outcasts and people who never know where their next meal might come from, that is more holy than any fast can ever be.
Right in the middle of today’s reading, at the end of the part we heard with the children, is this line: “everyone was amazed and said “we have never seen anything like this!”
It’s true, the world doesn’t see things like this very often. Our vision is so limited, so clouded, so constrained. When we do see it, we love the warm fuzzy feelings we get from such an inspirational story — stories like those about kids rallying around their classmate who has a disability, or about athletes from different countries turning back and helping each other across the finish line when one couldn’t make it another step, or about animals of different species being best friends.
But the thing is, those people who were in the house that day when Jesus amazed them all by seeing into their hearts and praising the committed friends and forgiving sins and telling the man to get up and walk, turning him from a passive recipient of grace to an active participant in the story...those people were amazed, but that didn’t translate into discipleship. Amazement is easy. Following is harder. Living in such a way that people see Jesus in us, that makes them question and ask why we do the things that he does...that’s more than just clicking “love” on an inspirational video.
I wonder how many followers of Jesus fell away when they realised they’d have to sit at table with “those people” if they wanted to really see Jesus. I wonder how many other friends that man had who didn’t commit themselves to carrying him to Jesus and digging through the roof. I wonder what people beside the Pharisees said when they saw those dinner parties....I bet they were amazed and said “we have never seen anything like this!” But then did they decide to be a part of showing that grace to the world? Or did they decide they preferred the old wine skins?
When Jesus said he came to call sinners, I think he was saying that he came to call those who need to be set free from all sorts of things...sometimes perhaps the things we would easily call “sin.” And sometimes perhaps the people he called needed to be set free from their attachment to the limited life span of the old structures they knew...or from the blinders that made it hard for them to imagine friendships across the barriers of class and religion and categories....or from a sense of personal ability, and therefore responsibility, to earn holiness and grace...along with those who needed to be set free from a belief they couldn’t ever be invited to the table.
We have never seen anything like this...but Jesus and those who claim his name will be found revealing it again and again, until all see both Jesus and themselves truly: with love.
May it be so. Amen.